Friday 21 Sep 2018 | 15:30 | SYDNEY
Friday 21 Sep 2018 | 15:30 | SYDNEY

Can America count on its Asian allies?


Hugh White

This post is part of the US-China: Measuring decline and rise debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

9 February 2012 14:04

This post is part of the US-China: Measuring decline and rise debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Malcolm Cook responds to my argument that US-China strategic competition is weighted China's way with two counter-examples. First, doesn't the US have a big advantage in its network of allies in Asia? And second, doesn't China now have global interests just as America does, so it too must spread its strategic efforts globally, rather than reap the advantage of being able to concentrate them in Asia, as I had suggested? Both goods points, but alas, I do not think either make much difference.

First, whether its allies are an asset or a liability for the US against China depends on how closely US objectives align with their allies' objectives. I think the alignment is much weaker than it often appears. 

The US wants to perpetuate American primacy in Asia, even at the expense of an adversarial relationship with China. Its Asian allies want to prevent China getting primacy, but that's not the same thing. In fact, they will not support the US sustaining primacy if the cost is US-China hostility. Most still hope they can avoid both Chinese hegemony and US-China hostility. 

So US allies do not share US objectives as they are now defined, and if push comes to shove, they will not help the US achieve them. The allies, then, are not an asset for the US – in fact they are probably a liability, though that's another argument.

Second, yes, China today has growing interests around the world beyond Asia. But are they strategic interests – by which I mean, are they interests that China values so highly that it would defend them with armed force? I don't think they are. America claims strategic interest in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere that require it to be able to deploy decisive military power globally, whereas China, like most other countries, does not seek to defend its wider interests with armed force in the same way.

What about energy shipping lanes from the Middle East, you ask? I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but I don't think China has the need or the capacity to defend these, and I see little evidence it is wasting money trying. 

The bottom line is that China does not try to project significant strategic power beyond the Western Pacific, so it can focus its efforts in the Western Pacific. America is trying to maintain a global posture. As many US commentators have said, all the talk of the pivot to Asia overlooks the fact the America still asserts a big role in a lot of other places that haven't gone away.

Photo by Flickr user Luke Redmond.